Monday, March 26, 2012

Intuitions as prejudices

Philosophical insights and conclusions are often founded on intuitions, at least partially; even in that degree that some – or maybe many – philosophers think that intuition is one of the main instruments of philosophy, next to conceptual analysis and argumentation. However, as we have seen in my blog dated June 22, 2009, Weinberg, Nichols & Stich have shown in an experiment that epistemic intuitions are not as objective as they were supposed to be, since they differ according to culture and within a culture according to social group (see also my blog last week). Must we not conclude then that at least epistemic intuitions are nothing but a special kind of prejudices? And isn’t it likely then that the same is true for other intuitions? By stating this (for I do state this, because I think that these questions have to be answered affirmatively), I do not want to say that intuitions have to be rejected and that they are of no use in philosophy. I do not say that. It is a prejudice that prejudices are fundamentally false. Prejudices are sometimes false but often they are true. Even more, prejudices can be and often are important and useful guides that lead our actions. Without them we wouldn’t survive, for investigating every new situation we encounter in order to have a founded opinion how to act is simply impossible. And then I ignore that often we just do not have the time to do that, since we have to act now in many cases. Then our prejudices are our action guides and usually they are reliable guides. It is the same for our intuitions. As prejudices they are important and useful in leading our reasoning and often they bring us to the right conclusions. However, this does not need to be so: intuitions are as prejudicial as prejudices are. And if all intuitions were right, how could we explain that they can differ according to social background?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Philosophical and experimental investigation

The way I developed the idea of intention in my last blog is typically philosophical. I formed an intuitive idea of intention in my head and tried to apply it to a certain case: the case of a runner (me) trying to break a world record. Then I applied the idea of intention to another case: me trying to hit the bull’s-eye. Next I concluded that my original conception of intention couldn’t be right. Intention had a wider meaning on a sliding scale. The whole argumentation took place in my head. This is the way many people, including philosophers, think what philosophizing is: a kind of argumentation that is founded exclusively on intuition and conceptual reasoning. But is that true? Is that all that philosophy is? Is there no place for empirical investigation in philosophy?
In fact, my last blog undermines already the view that philosophy is merely conceptual analysis and intuition: There I referred to an article by Sousa and Holbrook, whose conclusion that intention is a multiple concept was founded on empirical investigation. Moreover, what do we mean when we say that we have the intuition that something is true? Does something like intuition exist? As I have once discussed in a blog (dated June 22, 2009) intuitions are not as universal as they are supposed to be. In an experiment Weinberg, Nichols & Stich have shown that epistemic intuitions are not as objective as they were thought to be; they differ according to culture and within a culture according to social group. Philosophical conclusions may be different when drawn by people with different backgrounds. Generally, the so-called “experimental philosophy” has shown that experimental investigations can give interesting and important philosophical insights (see for instance my blog dated Feb. 23, 2009). As a third example I want to mention the present debate on the free will, one of the leading topics in philosophy today. It is just the experimental research by Libet and others that have led to new insights and questions in philosophy about what we mean and what it is about when we talk about free will.
These are only a few cases that show how experimental investigation can be relevant for philosophy. It can be useful in conceptual analysis (the case of intention); it can present valuable insights to be interpreted philosophically (for example that people are blamed for the negative side effects of what they do but not praised for the positive side effects, discussed in my blogs dated Feb. 23, 2009 and later); it can undermine philosophical views (the Cartesian dualism of brain and mind); and so on. The particular field of investigation for philosophy is non-experimental and especially conceptual-analytical. Intuitive insights can also be helpful, indeed. However, this does not imply that there is no role here for experimentation.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Can I intend to break a world record if I cannot break it?

Suppose that I love running. Initially, I ran twice a week. But after some time I did it effortlessly and I started to do it three times a week, then four times a week, and in the end I did it almost every day. I joined an athletics club, I trained a lot and I participated in races and I ran faster and fast. My personal bests became much better through the years and after four years of training I had a personal best of 14'37.8" on the 5,000 m. Not bad but on the other hand only of regional importance and just good enough for participating in the national championships, although I had absolutely no chance to win. Nevertheless I begun to dream: How would it feel to break a world record? I knew, of course, that the present 5,000 m record was about two minutes under my personal best. No chance to beat that time. Yet I continued dreaming and then I decided to start my next 5,000 m in a world record tempo and try to keep this pace up as long as possible and see where I would end. My chances were not bad, I thought: I was in top form and the other runners on the starting list could give me good competition. Can we say now that I had the intention to break the 5,000 m world record?
Once I reasoned that the answer was “no”. The argument was that it was simply impossible for me to break the record, because I should have to break my personal best with more than two minutes. Since I had already a rather long running history, such a thing would be impossible. But why cannot I have the intention to do it despite that?
I became aware of the problem again, when I read Sousa and Holbrook’s article “Folk Concepts of Intentional Action in the Contexts of Amoral and Immoral Luck” (Review of Philosophy and Psychology (2010) 1:351–370). I cannot summarize the article here, but the essence is that they argue that “intention” is a multiple concept that has more than one meaning. A current view says that intention implies the ability to do what one intends; it involves skill. Without having the skill to perform a certain action, one cannot seriously maintain that one has the intention to do it. If one succeeds nevertheless when trying to do the action, it’s by a fluke. For instance, if I take a gun for the first time in my life, point to the bull’s-eye and shoot, it should be mere luck if it is a hit, not because of my intention. Just this example raises doubt to the idea that one cannot say that I had the intention to hit the bull’s-eye, I think. Even if I had never had a gun in my hands before, this does not exclude that I can try to hit the bull’s-eye, and it seems not unreasonably to say then that I had the intention to do that, even though I did not have the skill. The question is solved if one realizes that “intention” may mean here not the same as the skill involving concept.
Now I go back to the case that I tried to break the 5,000 m world record. Cannot I say then that I had the intention to break the world record? It may be weird for me, but how about a person whose personal best is only one second above the world record? Or two seconds? Or 15 seconds? Or half a minute....? Where is the limit? And how about a young gifted runner who just took up running and who may have a good chance of bridging the two minutes gap within a few years? Once I met a runner who seriously though that he could bridge such gaps in a race. Must we say that he did not have the intention to do that, since we cannot imagine having such an intention in his case, because such an intention is unrealistic?
In view of this one can say that “intention” is a multiple concept. It can contain the idea of skill but it does not need to be so. But if this is right, it is a multiple concept on a sliding scale.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Travelling for books

The trip my wife and I made to Nancy had nothing philosophical. Actually we did not go there for the town but for seeing Rossini’s opera “L’Italiana in Algeri”. In terms of the famous Michelin travel guides, the performance was not only worth a detour; it was worth the travel. Once we were there, we did other things, as well; that’s clear. We admired the famous golden gates that give entrance to the central Stanislas Square and we did also some other sightseeing. I must say that we failed to see most of the Art Nouveau, a trend in art that had its origin in Nancy. We saw much of it, of course, but we didn’t give it special attention. Instead we went to the Aquarium Museum. No, not for looking at the strange creatures that live under the level of the sea, although we did do that once we were there. We went there for an exposition of the beautiful pictures that the French photographer Vincent Munier had made of nature and wildlife. But in the end, I couldn’t also refrain from entering a few bookshops. It’s a thing I always do on a holiday abroad. Today you can order books from everywhere in the world on the Internet, but still the best way to buy a book is going to a real shop. Losing your awareness of the world around you when walking along the tables and cases full of interesting (and also not so interesting) books. Looking for stimulants of your mind and for food for new ideas. Seeing and feeling the paper before buying, and reading a bit in the books for judging whether they are really what you are looking for. And for seeing what themes and subjects people elsewhere are interested in.
In fact, it wasn’t so that I started to look for bookshops only after my arrival in Nancy. At home I had already googled where I had to go and where I had the best chances for finding books I would like. When preparing a trip and looking for interesting things in a region or town I am going to visit, bookshops are among the latter. And during the years, I have gathered a range of addresses of bookshops I simply must visit if I am happen to be there, both in the Netherlands and in many towns abroad that I may pass on my trips, on the journey out or on the journey home. Bookshops that are worth a detour and sometimes even the travel. And now I can also add one in Nancy to my list. Does I have to say yet that I didn’t leave the town with empty hands?